Conventional wisdom says that the Kerry-Boxer clean energy bill faces a long uphill slog against unlikely odds. Many Senators, especially those in the “center,” think it’s unpopular. They think it will raise prices during a recession. They think it will unfairly hurt their states. They see little political upside and lots of possible downside.
Here’s the thing about Beltway CW, though: it always forecasts delay, difficulty, and failure. And it’s always right. Until it’s wrong. As Al Gore is fond of saying, politics, like climate, is nonlinear. An accretion of small changes can build beneath the surface of the news cycle and emerge unexpectedly as a rapid shift. The odds in Vegas may still be against the bill, but there are reasons for cautious optimism. Seven of them, actually.
1. Key Republican support is already in place, as Sen. Lindsey Graham takes to The New York Times editorial page with John Kerry to offer full-throated support for passing clean energy legislation this year:
It’s true that we come from different parts of the country and represent different constituencies and that we supported different presidential candidates in 2008. We even have different accents. But we speak with one voice in saying that the best way to make America stronger is to work together to address an urgent crisis facing the world.
Graham has been making noises, but this is thunder. The Kerry bill will not be able to pass without at least a little Republican support giving cover to conservative Dems. Graham is offering that cover early in the legislative process.
He’s also made the price clear: more support for nuclear and offshore drilling. That’s odious, but less odious that it appears at first blush, and an affordable price relative to the benefits of passing a bill.
Snowe and Collins are likely yes votes. With Graham so far out ahead on this, McCain may be shamed into joining him (though he’s far from a sure thing). Together they could get a second hearing from other Senators like Isakson who love nuclear power. (Alexander’s probably a lost cause now that he’s in leadership.) Their combined influence, coupled with his longstanding relationship with Obama, could pull Lugar over. In Florida, Crist could see this as part of his legacy and influence LeMieux to get behind it. At some point you can imagine a snowball effect, though the odds of breaking five Republican yea votes are still fairly low.
2. Health care reform might just work out after all. The Finance Committee finally passed a bill, it was scored favorably by the CBO, and floor debate approaches. After what seems like an eternity, there’s finally some consensus and momentum. It’s possible to imagine a bill passing in the next couple months. When that train leaves the station it will (finally!) free up much-needed Senate staff attention for when the clean energy train pulls in. It will clear the deck for Finance to mark up the Kerry bill (if Baucus decides he wants to, God help us all).
If a good healthcare bill is signed into law, it will have an enormous boost on morale and generate further momentum.
3. The public wants this bill. Conservative Dems are behind the times. They haven’t been keeping up with the latest polling, which shows that clean energy reform is broadly popular, even in swing states. Recent focus groups show that the right’s “energy tax” attack isn’t working. It gets crushed by the message that America needs to take control of its future, cut dependence on unfriendly countries, and create new jobs. Americans want it to get done and they’re willing to pay for it. Clean energy in particular is wildly popular — a recent poll found that “77% of Americans feel the federal government should make solar power development a national priority, including the financial support needed.”
There’s a good story to tell even about the most carbon intensive states. They are protected in the bill by consumer rebates and allowance money for trade-exposed industries. Every state has enormous potential for efficiency, and according to a new report:
At least three-fifths of the fifty states could meet all their internal electricity needs from renewable energy generated inside their borders. Every state with a renewable energy mandate can meet it with in-state renewable fuels.
Clean energy reform has potential benefits for every state and area of the country. It’s a winning political issue.
4. International pressure is becoming intense. Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize can be seen, at least in part, as a reward for taking the U.S. in a new direction on climate change. Accepting the prize will put him in Oslo on Dec. 10, right next door to Copenhagen, just as international climate talks begin there. Hint, hint.
Once upon a time the lack of action in China and other rapidly developing countries could be used as an excuse for delay in Congress, but that too is quickly changing. China is moving. Japan is moving. Indonesia is moving. Even India is moving (see also). Developing countries have made it clear that they’re willing to be part of a global system of emission reductions. Global green campaigns like 350.org and TckTckTck are building cross-cultural consensus around a set of baseline metrics. Everyone is waiting for the U.S. to step up. That puts enormous pressure on Obama to deliver the goods, which he can’t do without Senate support.
5. The administration is engaged. The administration has been criticized by greens for neglecting clean energy in favor of health care, and it’s true that with the exception of his U.N. speech Obama has mostly focused his public remarks elsewhere. Still, the accusation isn’t entirely fair: there’s an extraordinary level of engagement on clean energy legislation at the cabinet level, probably more so than on health. Browner, Chu, and Jackson have been advocating for the bill and meeting individually with Senators for months.
What’s missing so far is the full force of Obama’s personal popularity and persuasiveness, the most powerful forces in American politics. Everyone agrees the outcome in the Senate will at least somewhat turn on the level of his involvement.
6. Greens are getting their act together at last. The formation of the Clean Energy Works coalition a month ago presaged a period of relatively happy media news for greens. Some of it was the Chamber of Commerce stepping on rakes, but some credit goes to a more consistent message and concerted efforts to highlight stereotype-busting greens like veterans and business execs. There are targeted ad campaigns, media stunts (from groups like the Avaaz Action Factory, Greenpeace, and MoveOn), and a growing grassroots youth movement (see: Energy Action Coalition‘s PowerShift 09) making noise. It’s getting loud enough that even Congress can hear.
7. The business community is divided, as recent defections from the Chamber of Commerce demonstrate. More and more CEOs realize that the demographic they most covet — young people — cares about climate change, expects companies to be environmentally prudent, and expresses that opinion in purchasing decisions. Being backwards on climate is bad branding and bad business.
Ten years ago, every hot-sh*t entrepreneur, engineer, and investor wanted to change the web. Today they want to change the grid. They understand that clean energy legislation will unlock enormous business opportunities. Big companies want to get their hands on those opportunities, which is why they’re actively lobbying for a bill.
When Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donahue, a guy sitting comfortably at the center of an old boys network of long standing, finds himself offering defensive, incoherent pabulum on the subject of climate change and whining about big mean environmental groups … something has changed.
Given the brittle system by which legislation is passed in the U.S., with all its chokepoints and 60-vote mega-majority minimums, failure is always a safe bet. Despite all the heated talk about what Obama must “demand,” the truth is that the fate of this bill (and everything that hinges on it) lies with a small handful of Senators, Republicans and conservative Democrats who aren’t accountable to him or his agenda. Their political concerns are more idiosyncratic.
Nonetheless, there is a clear path from here to passage. If everything goes right and the Senate is willing to step up to history, it could happen.